Every four years, the National
Intelligence Council (NIC) produces a hefty report on
global trends likely to shape future events, and every four years, pundits
on its semi-anonymous authors. The main accusation? You guys can't predict
I say: lay off. It's true that the NIC's predictive track
record isn't particularly impressive, but so what? We put far too much store on
"predicting the future," and not nearly enough energy into shaping the future -- or developing the capabilities that will help
us respond with speed and agility when events take an unpredictable turn.
The Case Against the
NIC's Global Trends Report
It's easy and fun to diss the NIC's Global Trends Report,
recent of which came out this week. The NIC prefaces the Global Trends 2030
report by insisting
that it does "not seek to predict the future," but this disclaimer satisfies no
one: after all, to identify a trend is to imply directionality.
Generally speaking, NIC predictions fall into three
categories: there are concrete predictions, there are vague, hedged
predictions, and there are contradictory predictions.
Concrete predictions -- being concrete -- are easily
falsifiable, and as Michael Horowitz and Philip Tetlock wrote
in September, a lot of those predictions don't look so good when "the future"
turns into the past. Horowitz and Tetlock cite, for instance, the NIC's 1997
prediction that "The next 15 years will witness the transformation of North
Korea and resulting elimination of military tensions on the peninsula."
Hmm, not so much. Horowitz and Tetlock are stern: "Needless
to say, the Stalinist regime, though hardly the picture of health, remains
untransformed....and relations between North and South show little sign of
improving; military tensions are high." To Horowitz and Tetlock, prediction
tends to be a chump's game -- or, perhaps, a chimp's. "Predicting events five
years into the future" -- much less fifteen or twenty years -- "is so difficult
that most experts
perform only marginally better than dart-throwing chimps." Joshua
Foust is similarly skeptical: "any specific prediction in these texts will
almost invariably be wrong."
Then there are the vague and hedged predictions: it is
"virtually certain" that we'll see a diffusion of power among countries! Demographic
trends will pose challenges as some populations age and others remain
characterized by youth bulges! "[L]ook at the ‘megatrends' and ‘game-changers'
of the NIC study and you see only a rehashing of the past decade or so of Davos
meetings and McKinsey studies, the dross of popular futurism," laments
FP's David Rothkopf. Such vague predictions offer little specificity, which
makes them both tough to falsify and tough to know how to use. Global Trends
2030 daringly predicts, for instance, that migration and urbanization "could
put new strains on food and water resources." Since "new strains" can cover
just about anything from minor disagreements to famine, epidemic disease, and
world war, this is hard to dispute.
Finally, the NIC offers contradictory predictions, or
"scenarios that represent distinct pathways." On the "food, water, energy
nexus," we're informed that "there is as much scope for negative trade-offs as
there is the potential for popular synergies." And in general, says the NIC, many
"alternate futures" exist: the "risk of interstate conflict [could] rise owing
to a new ‘great game' in Asia," but on the other hand we could see the United States,
China, and Europe collaborating to prevent conflict from spreading, "leading to
worldwide cooperation to deal with global challenges."
Basically: bad stuff could happen, or good stuff could
happen, or in-between stuff could happen. Concludes Rothkopf: "[R]eports about
the future seldom do much to illuminate our understanding of what is yet to
Of course, NIC reports are hardly the only predictive
efforts to come under fire. Micah Zenko, for instance, suggests
that predictions made by the military are just as bad as predictions made by
the NIC: "The U.S. military has a terrible record of predicting where conflicts
will emerge and where they will be deployed to fight," he argues, and offers a
discouraging array of examples to prove his point. He quotes former Defense
Secretary Robert Gates: "When it comes to predicting the nature and location of
our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been
perfect. We have never once gotten it right..."
The Future Will Be
If you want to stay on safe ground, you can always predict
that the future will be unpredictable.
Admittedly, in a purely theoretical sense, the future is not unpredictable: the number of possible
permutations is vast, but not infinite. So if you had, hypothetically, a powerful
enough computer, and could load it up with data about absolutely everything
that is happening or has ever happened, you might conceivably get that
hypothetical computer to generate some solid predictions, with numerical
This, however, is not a feasible proposition. Literature
buffs may recall Jorge Luis Borges's short story, "On
Exactitude in Science," about a map built on a one-to-one scale: "[T]he
Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the
Empire, and which coincided point for point with it... [But].... The following
Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their
Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless."
For us humans -- with our cognitive
biases, limited information, and limited processing power -- it will always
be impossible to reliably predict the longer-term future, and all the more so
as the complexity of our global ecosystem grows. All we can predict with confidence
is that the future will -- probably -- be full of surprises.
Get Over It
But as I said, so what? Contrary to popular belief,
predicting unpredictability has real
value. The NIC's Global Trends Report is still valuable, because it reminds us
of two important things: first, that there's a tremendous amount we don't know
about what's going to happen in the future, and second, that the unknowable future
will nevertheless be shaped by the choices we make in the present.
This isn't chopped liver. On the contrary: this information has
logical and distinct implications for us as we make choices in the present.
Contrast the implications of concrete future predictions
with the implications of predicting numerous possible alternative futures. If
we have a concrete future prediction -- say, for instance, "a resurgent Russia will
pose the greatest long-term threat to the United States" -- we will naturally focus
our energies on preventing and preparing for possible conflict with the
Russians. Like all choices, this will have opportunity costs: if we calibrate
our investments and actions based on our knowledge of Russian capabilities, we
won't be able to prepare fully for various other potential threats.
If our predictions about Russia are correct, this doesn't
matter. But what if our predictions about Russia are wrong, as future
predictions tend to be, more often than not? What if, say, China turns out to
be the real threat, or a Latin American dictator acquires and threatens to use
nuclear weapons, or, for that matter, the earth is invaded by space aliens? Well...we'll
be in trouble. We'll have spent decades preparing for one thing, and it will be
hard to pivot to face another. Path-dependency is a
natural human tendency, and it's magnified by bureaucracy.
But let's say we accept the deeper message of the NIC's
latest Global Trends Report, which I take to be this: there are many plausible
alternative futures, and right now we can't really say which is most likely. We
can't say which is most likely, in part, because all sorts of things are unknowable
or beyond our control, and in part because life is like one of those "choose your own
adventure" books -- our decisions will contribute to shaping the future. This
has concrete implications for what we should do now.
Focus on Shaping and Responding.
Start with the first proposition, the proposition that most
human predictions are no more useful than those of dart-throwing chimps. We
don't know if the gravest future threats will come from Russia, or China, or al
Qaeda, or climate change, or some state or organization or phenomenon not yet
on our radar screen: an "unknown
unknown." This doesn't give us "nothing to prepare for." On the contrary,
it tells us that we need to prepare to respond to anything -- we need to
prepare for uncertainty,
for challenges and opportunities that will mutate and surprise us.
We talk about the need for agility
much that it's becoming a cliché, but like most clichés, it got that way
because it reflects truth. When you believe the future threat is the Russian
Army rolling in massed tank formations across the plains of Eastern Europe, you
focus on training and equipping your military to fight back against massed tank
formations. You don't bother training for counterinsurgency or stability
operations, and you don't worry too much about making
every corporal a strategist. But when you believe the coming threat will
surprise you, you prepare to respond to surprises.
That means you focus on creating creativity and resilience. You
train your corporals to be strategic. You develop equipment that is versatile.
You invest both in small cadres of specialists with the skills to combat the likely
near-term threats, and in larger groups of "utility infielders."
Finally, you seek to develop adaptive, dynamic institutional knowledge-building
and decision-making structures and
processes: if surprises come fast and furious, you don't want it to take
six months to tee up the most minor decisions for the president.
This is what you do if you expect surprises, and it's
distinctly different from what you do if you think you've got a good handle on
The second proposition -- that our decisions and actions will
shape the future -- also has consequences. (This is not to be mistaken for the
proposition that we can control the
future: as Karl Marx warned
in 1852, "Men make their own history,
but they do not make it just as they please.")
If we like some possible
futures more than others -- if we think that a multipolar world with robust
international mechanisms for addressing global challenges is better that a multipolar
world of great powers in conflict, for instance -- then we should get a move
You want effective
and equitable international institutions in the future, at which time U.S.
preeminence can no longer be assumed? Then we need to jump-start these institutions
now, while we still have outsized credibility and power. You want a future
world in which climate change doesn't cause mass refugee flows, resource
competition and conflict? Then get cracking on emissions control and the
development of alternative energy sources.
Leave the NIC Alone
"You're defining the
future today, whether or not you intend to," writes David Rothkopf, "and thus
the very best way to ensure a good 2030 is to focus on making the right choices
in 2013." But this has an unstated corollary: to make the "right" choices in
2013, you have to have an opinion on what would constitute a "good" 2030.
The NIC's predictions are offered in terms of plausible
alternative scenarios for the simple reason that this is about the best anyone
can do. And it's far from useless: by
outlining starkly different alternative futures, the NIC reports can help us
figure out what we want to achieve and what we want to avoid.
We know the future is uncertain, but we know we have at
least some ability to shape that future, providing we have a vision of what we
want...and we know we can improve our national ability to respond to even the "unknown
unknowns" with creativity, agility, and resilience.
So: quit beating up on the NIC, and let's get to it.